Campus protests over the past couple of years have escalated in scale and seriousness, with appalling acts of violence and intimidation against visiting conservative lecturers. In Washington State, Evergreen State College has mounted its Day Without White People, with threats and intimidation directed against those who refused to absent themselves. In the New York Times, even the very liberal Frank Bruni now demands that “These Campus Inquisitions Must Stop.” Critics of such actions denounce the climate of intolerance, but university authorities effectively do nothing, rarely even imposing mild disciplinary procedures. The implication is that there really is nothing worthwhile that universities can do, even if they chose to act. The public, it seems, should keep their racist, sexist, transphobic, mouths shut, while continuing to write the tuition checks. 

If only there were some way to restore sanity and decency on campus! Actually, there are multiple opportunities to do so. Most obviously, public universities (like Evergreen State) depend on state legislatures for most or all of their funding, and could be hit hard by concerted action by elected officials.

Now, that recourse would not be available for private schools, like Yale or Middlebury College. Does that make them immune from external pressure or sanction? Well, actually no.

Unknown to most non-academics, there is in fact a deterrent of nuclear proportions that can be invoked in circumstances of extreme and egregious misbehavior. So fearsome is this weapon that, if deployed, it would assuredly induce academic authorities to clean up their act. If you are not an academic administrator, you know next to nothing about accreditation. If however you are, even invoking that unspeakable thirteen letter word causes grown adults to blanch. American universities rely on public ignorance of that fact.

So what is this nightmare beast, accreditation? All academic institutions, public and private, are accredited by various private agencies, which vouch for the quality and effectiveness of schools and their programs. Accreditation can be granted to a whole institution, or to specific programs that it offers. Dozens of such agencies exist, and they differ greatly in how far they acknowledge each other’s authority. There is, though, a core of six regional bodies that really matter. These include the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU), and the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE). The NWCCU, for instance, accredits 159 universities and colleges, including Evergreen State; Middlebury is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).

Each of these agencies promulgates elaborate and quite draconian policies, covering minutiae of administrative policies, faculty qualifications, student support services, and student life. The language is expansive and designed to be legally enforceable. Institutions are reviewed regularly for compliance, and unadvertised visits and spot checks are a real possibility. Any institution or program found in violation of any part of these requirements is in deep trouble. Accreditation can be suspended, or schools can be reduced to probationary status during investigations, which are extremely long, expensive and time consuming. Literally, they can tie up a school and all its bureaucrats for years at a time. The ultimate nightmare is that a college can entirely lose its accredited status.

Why does this matter? Because if a school loses its accreditation, its degrees and qualifications no longer count for anything. It can no longer issue “degrees” that qualify for employment. Credits acquired from that school cannot be transferred. If we imagine the unthinkable—that Yale University lost its accreditation—then its degrees would count as much or as little as a diploma from the John Doe Academy of Astrology and Other Advanced Sciences. If an elite liberal arts college lost its accreditation, then its graduates would have spent a quarter million dollars (plus) for literally nothing. The college would be moribund, unless and until it regained accreditation.

No administrator would even risk such an appalling prospect. They would do anything to clean up their collective act, and to be seen to be doing so.

Now, as with most legal documents, accreditation standards do not literally and precisely address every eventuality that might arise. They do not, for instance, say that colleges shall prevent the mobbing and silencing of speakers, or shall prohibit flagrantly racist stunts by self-described social justice activists. Rather, they set out general standards, commonly framed in terms of safety, health and well-being, and academic freedom. The Southern Association of College and Schools demands that “the institution takes reasonable steps to provide a healthy, safe, and secure environment for all members of the campus community.” The NEASC (New England) specifies that, “The institution protects and fosters academic freedom for all faculty regardless of rank or term of appointment.” A member institution must “provide a safe environment that fosters the intellectual and personal development of its students.” All the accrediting bodies use similar boilerplate language about health, safety, institutional environment, and academic freedom.

But that general language can be applied expansively. To use an analogy, the vast Title IX apparatus that has emerged on college campuses is founded upon a very short and general legal text concerning sexual discrimination. Why should not the language of accreditation standards be treated similarly?

There is no conceivable way in which the recent campus horror stories can be reconciled with those lofty standards. In what sense can a campus be described as “safe” if the sober and respectful expression of mildly dissenting views invites physical assault? Can such behavior be reconciled with any concept of academic freedom? If colleges cannot be accused of directly fomenting or carrying out such acts, they assuredly can be blamed for failing to discipline perpetrators. They can likewise be faulted for not employing and training police forces to defend the liberties of individual students and faculty—in short, to create an appropriate institutional environment. If schools permit mob rule, they can and must be sanctioned, and the accreditation agencies are the critical protagonists in any such process.

If those agencies will not exercise that function, then we really need to know why that is. Appropriate pressure needs to be placed on them, whether from the U.S. administration, from legislators, or the general public. Make them do their job. Evergreen State would be a wonderful place to start.

Do we want to restore civility on US campuses? Then explore the potential of accreditation. Let’s start the debate.

Philip Jenkins teaches at Baylor University. He is the author of Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution That Made Our Modern Religious World (forthcoming Fall 2017).